Why reform the House of Lords? Why not abolish it completely?

Last week, the Government published plans for a reformed House of Lords. Explaining the principle behind a mainly elected upper chamber, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said: “at the end of the day this just comes down to a really, really simple idea; and it’s called democracy”.

Over the next three elections, the Government proposes, the House of Lords will reassemble as a chamber in which 80 per cent of its members will be elected; the remaining 20 per cent will be chosen by an Appointments Commission. The new ‘lords’ (although they won’t be allowed to call themselves that) will be restricted to serving single terms of fifteen years. They will be elected via Proportional Representation into seats covering whole regions – bigger than the constituencies covered by MPs in the House of Commons.

On the surface, Clegg looks well positioned to push through what could well be the defining legacy of the Lib Dems’ time in government. The public agree with Nick; 76 per cent support reforming the upper chamber, which, as YouGov President, Peter Kellner rightly points out, “defies every democratic principle”. The parties agree with Nick; all three leaders support reform; all three included it in their manifesto and all three are pressuring their own MPs to back change. The Prime Minister is reported to have told Clegg that he’ll do everything in his power to deliver House of Lords reform. For more than a century, politicians have pursued the same goal and failed. It is “time to make progress”, insisted David Cameron.

A little deeper, and Clegg faces a slow, savage slugging match. No. 10 sources are reported as saying they expect “blood on the walls, floor and ceiling” in the form of a fierce rebellion from backbench Tories, who will viciously defend the status quo, and Labour opportunists, homing in on a perfect opportunity to derail the Coalition. Some Conservative backbenchers have described the plans as a “constitutional monstrosity”; others have said they will resign over the issue. News outlets report that the very timetabling of debate could be sabotaged, derailing any hopes (if there ever were any) of a clean, quick win.

Among the public, attitudes are actually a little more nuanced than statistics suggest. Yes, the majority of people care about an elected lords, but – as I’ve written on these pages before – they don’t care very much – less than a fifth believe it is an urgent matter right now. Moreover, while Clegg is insisting reform is premised on the principle of democracy, most of the public think they should have a say in the matter – only a quarter think that change should be enacted without a public vote. The prospect of reform costing us money in an age of austerity is another turn off. Finally, as Kellner says, come polling day, and people will become much more interested in details than they are now. Indeed, scrutinise the small print of Clegg’s plans, and a real risk emerges – that, in pursuit of democracy, an elected upper chamber will be both more powerful, and, in the eyes of many voters, more legitimate than the current Commons.

First, newly elected members of the House of Lords would serve longer terms than their Commons counterparts, allowing them more freedom to pursue their own agenda without being held to account by voters. Second, they would represent larger areas – and most likely more people – than MPs in the lower chamber. Third, they would be elected via the PR system. At the moment, MPs – including Nick Clegg, of course – are elected via the First Past The Post system – the “choice of dinosaurs”, according to Clegg. There is not space here to explain in great detail why so many – including this author – see PR as more democratic than the current system, but the risk remains that members of an elected upper chamber could claim a more legitimate right to be there than MPs like Clegg and Cameron. This is, in all probability, a key goal of Clegg’s. After the landslide ‘no-to-AV’ (Alternative Vote – or PR-‘lite’) last year, embedding PR within the House of Lords could well reignite debate about introducing it to the House of Commons.

Nick Clegg should be applauded; his plans to abolish the House of Lords throw up some much-needed questions about the state of our democracy. But, when it comes to Lords reform, the biggest question of all is one that few are asking: why have a House of Lords at all?

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About eugenetgrant

I work as a Public Policy Advisor on Financial Inclusion, Poverty and Welfare, for a disability charity. Prior to that, I worked at the independent think tank Demos. I have written for a variety of online and in print publications, including the Social Policy Association, Progress Online, Disability Now, Labour Uncut, Anthonypainter.co.uk and Touchstone. I am available for articles and comment pieces on disability issues, British politics and current affairs. My email is eugenetgrant at googlemail dot com. Please feel free to get in touch. View all posts by eugenetgrant

2 responses to “Why reform the House of Lords? Why not abolish it completely?

  • Tom Shakespeare

    Okay, so your ingenious suggestion sent me to check: half of all states have unicameral systems, including positive examples of democracy such as New Zealand and Denmark (and more questionable ones like Saudi Arabia, China and Iran). So it can work.
    But surely a second chamber has an important role as a revising chamber, to delay controversial legislation, and to ensure that a government with a strong majority still have to work hard to get its more extreme legislation passed? As well as to ensure that someone in parliament has diverse life experience, rather than just a track record as a hack.
    The current system is undemocratic, medieval and embarrassing.
    Surely it is not beyond the wit of parliamentarians to devise a solution where House of Commons has the moral and democratic authority and the second chamber is there as a subsidiary: e.g legislation can only originate in lower chamber…can only delay and revise, not defeat…

  • eugenetgrant

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement: “The current system is undemocratic, medieval and embarrassing”. This is absolutely true.

    However, regarding the role – or power, shall we say – of the Lords to serve as a revising chamber, let’s look at the Welfare Reform Act. This was – is, will be – a legislative hatchet to the welfare state. Proposals inc. cutting benefits for women who’ve just escaped domestic violence. And yet, despite the very best efforts from the Lords – and I worked with some of them – the Government won, the *vast* majority of amendments were overturned and the legislation passed. In short, there was little, if any, revising.

    In terms of life experience, your argument actually supports the current system. Surely a house of elected peers will be filled with those who failed to make the Commons? At present, the Lords actually captures a rich range of experiences – Tanni Grey-Thompson, for example. This is in stark contrast to many of the ‘career politicians’ – private-school-to-OxbridgePPE-tothinktank-toSpAd-topoliticians that the commons is filled with. I think an elected upper chamber would be more of this, and less of what it is now.

    But also, it’s how the public see the second chamber. Clegg can talk about the parliamentary act and Commons supremacy all he wants, but the risk remains that some people will see the new not-lords, elected by a more fair system, on behalf of more people and for longer, as potentially more credible than their counterparts in the commons.

    So, the question still stands: why not just abolish it? We could give the money back to those women I mentioned…

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